The Unpleasantness in Inglewood

July 11, 2002

This past week a videotape has appeared on television over and over again, apparently showing a while police officer committing police brutality against a black teenager. The Mayor of Inglewood, where the incident occurred, immediately went on TV and said he didn't need to know anything beyond what he saw on the videotape — and thus he could pronounce the policeman guilty. Apparently, the Mayor has no knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, the presumption of innocence, or the rule of law.

I have no way of knowing exactly what happened, and thus whether the policeman is guilty — or as guilty as the videotape makes him out to be. That's why we have court trials. Or is the Mayor suggesting that no trial is necessary in this case?

In 1992, when four police officers were found innocent in court after being accused of brutality against Rodney King, the Los Angeles riots ensued — egged on by the press, TV, the President of the United Sates, and practically every conservative and liberal commentator in America. At that time, I wrote the following article for my newsletter, Harry Browne's Special Reports. 

The article covers much more than just the matters at issue in 1992; it covers the widespread ignorance of the rule of law in America today. In looking it over this past week, I realized that it is very timely today.  — Harry Browne.

 

The Unpleasantness in L.A.

by Harry Browne

June 22, 1992

Perhaps someday legal scholars will study the Rodney King incident, the trial of the policemen, the Los Angeles riots, and the press coverage of it all seeing all this as a classic example of a lynch mob in action.

The writers of the American Constitution foresaw many of the problems that arose during the past year, and they put safeguards in the Constitution to prevent those problems from occurring. But, of course, the Constitution has no power to enforce itself, and politicians see it only as a topic for 4th-of-July speeches.

People seeing lynch mobs in western movies find it easy to be condescending, because they're sure they would never be so irrational as to try to execute someone without a trial. They don't realize that the people in the lynch mob would have said the same thing.

Viewing the mob on the screen, you don't recognize that in real life people see rational reasons for joining the mob. At that moment, the truth seems irrefutable to most of them. Others participate because social pressure has become so hysterical that to disagree would seem to imply approval of the original crime.

The hysteria surrounding the Rodney King matter would be incomprehensible to the legendary stranger from Mars. Out of 250 million Americans, supposedly there are only 16 people who couldn't see the undeniable truth the 4 policemen and the 12 jurors.

Of course, the reality is that far more than 16 people dissented from the prevailing hysteria. But in most cases the others were given no platform from which to speak, their voices were drowned out by the cacophony of political posturing, or they were simply afraid to dissent publicly.

Many public figures who would be expected to raise voices of reason found themselves repeating the well-worn words "injustice" and "racism." And they sought to reassure the mob that, where local government had committed an injustice, the Feds would ride to the rescue with "civil rights" prosecutions.

REMEDIES ARE ALL MISGUIDED

Needless to say, the remedies being offered are all guaranteed to make matters worse.

Your tax dollars will be spent to build more structures to be torched in the next riot. And the "enterprise zones" the Bush administration is pushing are a good example of using tax and regulatory policy to deflect resources from where they're needed to where the government wants them to go.

You may be sick of the subject, and thankful that the hysteria has died down a bit. But there are five basic social ills that contributed to the whole mess and I've seen a reference to only one of them in the scores of articles I've read on the subject.

These five problems affect you as an investor and in other areas of your life. So I think they're worthy of discussion here.

1. DUE PROCESS IS OVERDUE

"First the verdict, then the trial," to paraphrase Alice in Wonderland.

The verdict in this case was decided a year ago when the videotape was aired. The only remaining question was: What will the sentences be?

But trials are held for a reason not just to settle controversial questions, but to be absolutely sure about questions that seem incontrovertible. As Roger Parloff has put it:

People's everyday judgments are quick and cruel. A criminal trial is designed to ensure that a more deliberate and well-considered decision-making process will be employed.

Although politicians, journalists, and social activists didn't want to be bothered by doubts, the videotape wasn't due process, it wasn't a trial, and it wasn't conclusive evidence of anything. The trial was necessary to go beyond what everyone saw on television.

The tape lasted 81 seconds, but not one person in a thousand saw more than a few seconds of the tape. Viewers didn't see Rodney King attacking the policemen, unfazed by a stun gun; they didn't see the policemen stop swinging their sticks the moment he decided to surrender.

Even if you saw the whole 81 seconds, it couldn't show you everything. A videotape can't show what happened before and after, it can't show you what is outside the range of the camera for instance, who might have been hiding behind the car. It couldn't show the 100-mph car chase that threatened the lives of the passengers in Rodney King's car, the policemen, and innocent bystanders on the street. And it didn't show that the two passengers surrendered immediately and so weren't struck by the policemen.

When the jurors announced their verdict at the end of the trial, the circus began. Almost every two-bit politician and social commentator liberal and conservative alike denounced the verdict as an injustice. People whose entire knowledge of the events consisted of 5 seconds of videotape and some press gossip sat in judgment on the jurors who sat through weeks of testimony and evidence.

How do you explain the jurors' surprising verdict? The obvious explanation is that they knew facts about the case that we didn't. But if you're unwilling to accept that idea, your only recourse is to call them racists. Or else you have to blame the change of venue, the defense attorneys who played upon the jurors' fear of crime, or the idea that the jurors watched the videotape too many times and became "desensitized" to the violence.

The Rule of Law

The people screaming so loudly about the verdict have no respect for the rules of evidence rules that are the outgrowth of hundreds of years of English common-law experience, rules that have made the English-American system of justice the safest possible for the ordinary citizen.

The protections built into the American Bill of Rights aren't there for the benefit of the guilty. They're for the innocent who are mistakenly accused and who would be powerless to defend themselves without the protections as well as to make sure that the truly guilty person doesn't go free because of an innocent person being unfairly convicted.

Cross-Examination

For example, eye-witness accounts are meaningless until they're subjected to cross-examination. You can read a book or article that proves beyond doubt that so-and-so did such-and-such and backs it up with the testimony of eye witnesses. But these are simply accusations until they're put to the test of cross-examination.

Only then might it be revealed that the eye witnesses have told similar stories before about other people, or that they have hidden motives for saying what they did, or that their accusations are buying leniency for their own crimes, or that they simply don't know what they're talking about.

Thus the Bill of Rights specifies that:

The accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

This is why hearsay evidence is inadmissible because the person who supposedly made the original statement isn't available to be cross-examined.

Rights to Counsel & to Remain Silent

Two important rules are that the accused shall not:

be compelled, in any criminal case, to be a witness against himself. . . . [and that he shall] have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

If someone is innocent, why shouldn't he be straightforward with the police or the courts answer every question put to him and simply tell the truth? Because there's a difference between being innocent and being able to explain everything that happens in the world.

Very few people are articulate, very few can think quickly and clearly, very few can win a battle of words and wits with a trained attorney or interrogator. Anyone who's accused has the right, without prejudice, to simply say nothing and let his attorney speak for him.

If you're ever called before a tribunal of any kind a police station, the IRS, a securities investigation, whatever don't go without an attorney. If you insist on handling it by yourself, we may never hear from you again and we'll miss your subscription renewal.

Of course, if you're called before Congress and refuse to testify against yourself, you'll be indicted for "contempt of Congress" (which is obviously a misnomer, since Congress is beneath contempt).

No Double Jeopardy

Another valuable Bill of Rights provision:

. . . nor shall any person be subject, for the same offence, to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; . . .

This clause was meant to assure that no citizen could be hounded by the government retried over and over until a prosecutor found a jury he could control.

Almost immediately after the King verdict was announced, cries went up that the defendants be tried again on federal civil rights charges. And it's a sign of the low state of this country that the President of the United States was one of those leading the charge for a second trial.

Civil Liberties

Conservatives during the past few decades have made a glaring error in fighting against the Constitutional privileges of criminal defendants. You won't reduce crime by throwing out civil liberties.

Crime has soared in recent decades because of the misguided War on Drugs, because of the cesspools the schools have begun, because the prisons are stocked with non-violent offenders leaving no room for the thugs, because every social reformer dotes on the criminal class, because private property isn't taken seriously. These problems have allowed a thousand criminals to roam free on the streets for every one who was let loose on a legal technicality.

Civil liberties are no different from the right to own a gun or the right to privacy. Liberals cry that you don't need a gun if you aren't going to kill someone, and that you don't need privacy if you have no sins to hide. And conservatives cry that you don't need "civil liberties" if you haven't committed a crime. All these assertions are misguided. It is always the innocent who need these protections the most.

Gun-control laws don't inhibit criminals, but they do render innocent citizens helpless to defend themselves. The anti-privacy laws spawned by the War on Drugs haven't stemmed the flow of drugs, but they have messed up the lives of law-abiding citizens. And abuses of civil liberties by the police, prosecutors, and courts do little to keep criminals off the streets but they can turn the lives of innocent people into a nightmare.

Criminals do sometimes use technicalities to escape justice. But far more often, the constitutional provisions save innocent people from horrors.

Even if that were not so, as William Blackstone said, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."

And there's a good reason for that. Although the crime rate is a scandal, there's usually a way by which you can personally avoid the ten guilty persons who are roaming free. But if you're the one innocent whom the state decides to do in, all the money in the world won't buy your freedom. Your only hope is a judge who respects every jot and tittle of the Constitution.

Because I fear the power of government so much, I'm particularly wary of police brutality. But accused policemen are no less entitled to the protections of the Constitution than anyone else.

I don't know whether the four policemen were innocent or guilty. I didn't sit through the trial. But the 12 jurors did. They used the rules of evidence to weigh far more than 5 seconds of videotape.

And I suspect they had a much better idea of the truth than the President, Jesse Jackson, or Phil Donahue.

Meanwhile, Back in the Investment World

Eye-witness accounts in criminal law are similar to the avalanche of investment facts and statistics that descend on us. Just as unexamined testimony is offered as evidence of some scandal, so are facts, statistics, and inside information provided to prove where an investment price must go.

But statistics can justify any contention. And a writer selects the "facts" that justify the end he had in mind when he began his research. You first must have confidence in the reasonableness of the writer presenting the theory. And then you have to take what he says with a grain of salt.

And if economic statistics are equivalent to eye-witness accounts, graphs must be the Rodney King Videotape of the investment world. With a graph, it's all there right before your eyes; there can be no mistake; the conclusion is obvious except that graphs can be as deceiving as videotapes.

A graph can seem to demonstrate overwhelmingly that, say, a particular economic condition leads inevitably to another condition (such as federal deficits causing inflation). But we have no way of knowing whether one condition is the cause of the second, or that the second is the cause of the first, or that both are caused by some other condition that isn't shown on the graph, or whether the whole thing is simply a coincidence.

Graphs are wonderful tools. Like a moving picture, a graph can make it easier to understand something that might otherwise take pages to explain. But in the hands of someone who's careless with the truth, it can be used to mislead, overemphasize, misinform, or just plain deceive.

Like the videotape, the graph doesn't show you who's hiding behind the car.

2. RULE OF LAW vs. RULE OF RESULTS

The reaction to the King verdict also highlights the growing demand for results-oriented prosecutions, verdicts, and judgments. The Rule of Law has been all but vaporized in favor of verdicts that satisfy a predetermined purpose.

The Rule of Law means that there are fixed laws that are clearly defined and known to everyone, that all people are subject to the same laws, and that people are judged on the basis of the fixed laws and not on the basis of political preference, social objective, "need," or "compassion."

The Rule of Results means that prosecutors and courts improvise judgments, la Solomon, to effect results they believe will do the most good for society. This approach assumes that everyone agrees on what is right and wrong, even regarding matters that aren't codified in law, and that the court's duty is to enforce those concepts of right and wrong. But in reality there is no agreement on what is morally right and so the courts are used to impose one group's morals upon other groups.

The abandonment of the Rule of Law can be seen in many areas of American life. Here are a few obvious examples of the Rule of Results:

  1. Regulatory agencies are endowed by Congress with broad purposes, such as to clean up the environment or banish fraud from the securities markets, without any specific laws that citizens can use as guidelines. The agencies make up the rules as they go along, investigate activities they don't like, try the cases, render the verdicts, and impose the sentences. Not only are they the prosecutor, judge, and jury rolled into one agency, they combine the legislative, administrative, and judiciary branches of government in one group of people and one set of prejudices.

  2. Sometime in the 1970s Congress and the SEC declared war on "insider trading." Since then both bodies have vehemently opposed the passage of any law defining what insider trading is. Congressmen John Dingell, the most influential Representative in this area, claims that he knows insider trading when he sees it, and that's all that matters. Results-oriented prosecutions of presumed insider trading have produced staggering tragedies financial ruin, reputations destroyed, and pervasive fear in the investment industry.

    (Congressmen and prosecutors have warned that defining insider trading in a clear, unambiguous law would allow wheeler-dealers to evade prosecution by staying just barely on the right side of the law. But, of course, that's what laws are for to tell you what is legal and what isn't, so you will stay on the right side of the law.)

  3. Congressmen have made many laws intentionally vague so that they could avoid taking a position on controversial provisions. When asked to explain these provisions, they reply, "The courts will decide." There is no fixed law, no way for citizens to regulate their own conduct so as to stay out of trouble, no way to know that what they do today won't be determined by the courts tomorrow to have been illegal. (Good examples are the various "discrimination" acts, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and other "civil rights" laws.)

  4. Civil suits, with standards for establishing guilt that are laxer than those for criminal cases, proliferate because judges allow anyone with any kind of grievance to have his day in court and because of the vague laws Congress has passed. Many judges encourage juries to decide cases on the basis of need and the ability to pay. This is "Solomon-type" adjudication, not the Rule of Law. And no citizen is free from the threat of such litigation because no fixed laws assure him that his conduct won't be considered criminal at some later date.

  5. Judges decide civil suits by choosing what would be best for society or the parties to the dispute, and in the process ignore the clear terms of contracts that were signed by all the parties.

  6. Since in so many cases the laws are vague, or even non-existent, prosecutors can intimidate anyone. By threatening a jail sentence, they can force defendants to betray their business associates, employers, or friends as the price of staying out of jail. This has been the prosecutors' primary weapon in the Drug War and the basis of the Reign of Terror in the investment industry.

    (Michael Milken is required to squeal on his business associates as the price of a reduced sentence. He testified in the trial of Alan Rosenthal, who was supposedly one of his co-conspirators. At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Louis L. Stanton ruled that one of the events at issue one for which Mr. Milken is already serving time wasn't a crime at all. Probably the only people who still believe in Mr. Milken's guilt are U.S. attorney Rudolf Guiliani, SEC Chairman Richard Breeden, and the reporters at Barron's. Very likely, his sentence will be reduced soon as a way of saving the faces of those who have participated in his railroading.)

  7. The U.S. government has prosecuted people it considers unattractive from Michael Milken to Manuel Noriega with no legal basis on which to act. It has kidnapped foreign citizens from Mexico, Panama, and other countries and brought them to the U.S. for trial with no precedent in national or international law.

The demand for results was never more evident than in the Rodney King affair. Not only were the jurors castigated for delivering a politically incorrect verdict, they were told in effect that the Los Angeles riots occurred because they refused to discard the Rule of Law.

3. LOOTERS DID WHAT THEY WERE TOLD

The third area that's been overlooked in discussions of the Los Angeles riots is that the looters were simply doing what they had been told they have a right to do.

For decades they've been assured by politicians, the press, and social activists that economic inequality is wrong that the rich got wealthy on the backs of the poor that everyone is entitled to free education, free medical care, and a decent standard of living that businessmen succeed only by lying, cheating, and stealing from their customers.

The social and political leaders have promised over and over to right these "wrongs," but they've failed to deliver. So who can blame the looters for being impatient waiting for "the system" to keep faith with them? If it's okay for the government to confiscate property from the rich and give it to the protesters, why can't the protesters do it themselves?

When looters were interviewed by the press, their comments were remarkably similar. They spoke about a racist society that denies equal opportunity to blacks. They said there was no difference between the beating of Rodney King and the beating and killing of innocent whites. It all sounded familiar and strangely articulate coming from just plain street folks.

But it shouldn't have. They were simply repeating what they'd heard from Jesse Jackson, Michael Dukakis, L.A. Mayor Thomas Bradley, religious leaders, and many conservatives including George H.W. Bush.

4. EDUCATION IN AMERICA

Not one child in 50 understands any of what I've discussed in this article.

Students in government schools (and probably most private ones) are unequipped to deal with these issues.

The schools have no time to waste on such esoteric subjects as reading, writing, arithmetic, history, constitutional law, private property, or the rules of evidence. They're too busy teaching students how to use condoms, how to pressure their parents to recycle garbage, how to protest against apartheid, how to understand their own latent homosexuality, and how to respect "diversity."

The campaign to restore reason and liberty to America is doomed to failure, because what is logical and reasonable to you is senseless to your children's generation.

Small gains made by passing or changing laws are temporary, because the schools keep graduating hordes of students who are scientifically, economically, and morally illiterate but who understand "social justice." And these generations of illiterates will demand a reversal of any small political gains.

Any revolution against what America has become has no chance to succeed unless it begins with the educational system.

5. THE PRESS TO THE RESCUE

The fruits of our educational institutions can be seen in the press.

The editors, reporters, journalists, news announcers, and commentators should be the vanguard of literacy, of reason, of sophistication. They should be the cool heads that bring the unnoticed perspective to our attention. Instead, most of the press consists of smug ideologues who can't write grammatically and who have no original thoughts.

In the movies, it's always the newspaper editor who stands up to the lynch mob. In real life, the editor is usually leading the mob.

It was the press that rendered the verdict in the Rodney King case the day after the videotape first aired. It was the press that ignored the possibility of any other evidence.

It was the TV networks and local stations that showed the 5 seconds of videotape over and over for a year. And what defies understanding is that, on the night the riots began, TV stations all over the country fanned the flames by rerunning the Rodney King videotape. ABC's evening news program, World News Tonight, showed the tape 3 times within 30 minutes, and the next morning NBC's Today show ran it 4 times in 45 minutes.

The situation was aggravated by the sloppiness and imprecision of reporters. Over and over I heard phrases like "beating him senseless while he was in custody" when Mr. King was never unconscious and the beating stopped the moment he agreed to be taken into custody.

Almost all the deep-thought interpretations of the crisis made reference to the "Reagan-Bush cuts in aid to states and cities" as though the city of Los Angeles were so poor that it could deal with crime only by confiscating the property of people in Mississippi.

In fact, there have been no cuts in federal aid to cities and states. The reporters and journalists cited cuts in specific subprograms never mentioning that the overall amount of aid to local governments has continued to grow and grow and grow. By implying that aid had been cut, the groundwork was laid for massive new programs to be introduced.

Inaccuracies were compounded by unoriginality. Unable to provide any fresh insights into the whole matter, reporters and journalists fell back on stock comments. The words injustice, rage, and beating were intoned over and over again on TV and in newspapers. Each reporter and commentator used these words with no self-consciousness as though he alone had discovered their relevance.

The press in America consists mostly of illiterate, unoriginal, ideologically motivated cheerleaders for social activism. And as they lumber along in the herd, elbowing to keep their place, they pride themselves on being independent thinkers.

CONCLUSION

The recent unpleasantness in L.A. doesn't lend itself to a simple, one-line explanation of its causes.

If racism was involved, it wasn't the simple white-against-black racism with which the poor jurors were accused. It was more likely the steady anti-white propaganda that has been drummed into the residents of Central Los Angeles for decades telling them the Koreans and honkies have been exploiting them.

And the idea that the cities will be rebuilt by the same government that delivers the mail and maintains our bumpy highways is too absurd to take seriously.

The roots of the L.A. crisis go much deeper to generations of illiterates graduated by government schools, by an ignorance of what the law is supposed to accomplish, by a concept of "civil rights" that turns civil liberties upside down, by an egalitarian social atmosphere that tells people they have a right to the property of others, and by a press that may be even more intellectually corrupt than Congress.

What we've been seeing the past few decades is, in my opinion, the breakdown of government itself. For generations, the government schools managed to turn out reasonably educated graduates, governments at all levels managed to maintain the streets and keep them relatively safe, and all this was done within somewhat modest budgets. Thus, even though government wasn't the most efficient alternative for any task, it performed certain jobs reasonably well at a price that didn't seem outrageous to very many people.

But in recent decades, the cost of government has soared while the average citizen gets almost nothing in return. The schools are cesspools, the cities are centers of mayhem, the roads are unkempt, the politicians are more arrogant, the courts have become instruments for redistributing wealth, and businessmen have had to be more energetic and more innovative to circumvent regulations and to deliver what we need and want. There isn't a single function of government that any politician can point to with pride.

(Whenever politicians and pundits need to refer to an example of a government program that works, they invariably come up with Head Start the program that provides special tutoring for a handful of pre-school children. I've never investigated the program, so I can't swear that they're wrong. But, even if they're correct, is that all they can cite as the reward for the 1 trillion dollars a year the federal government costs us?)

The nature of government has caught up with itself.

And yet, as government is delivering less and less, the public is being told it should expect more and more from government. The promise and the reality are galloping in opposite directions. And the potential for unsatisfied demands to trigger violence gets greater and greater.

I can't predict the future. But as I look at the horizon, I can't help but wonder how many more L.A.s are just beyond it.